Repaying open space funds is not a mandate
The Maryland Democratic Party apparently will use any excuse to attack Republican Gov. Larry Hogan.
Last week, Hogan signed into law a bill that requires the state to pay back some of the money that has been diverted from programs to conserve agricultural, rural and open spaces.
The state began Program Open Space, which preserves non-developed land through funding collected by a transfer tax of 0.5 percent on every real estate transaction, in 1969.
But those funds are not locked away for their intended purposes and the program’s funds have been targeted by lawmakers and gubernatorial administrations when the state has faced budget deficits.
According to Partners for Open Space, more than $1 billion has been diverted from the program since its inception. According to the group, those funds would have provided for “1,200 new and updated local parks, 185,000 additional acres of protected farms and forests, and 65,000 additional acres of state parks and valuable ecological areas.”
House Bill 462, which provides for the repayment of at least some of those funds, was approved unanimously by the Maryland House of Delegates and State Senate. The votes were 139-0 in the House and 46-0 in the Senate. State delegates then voted 134-0 to approve the bill as amended in the senate.
Under the provisions of the law, $60 million in new funding will go to programs — such as Program Open Space, the Maryland Agricultural Land Preservation Fund and Rural Legacy — funded by transfer taxes.
Josh Hastings, policy manager for the Eastern Shore Land Conservancy and chairman of the Partners for Open Space steering committee, explained the rationale of funding open space programs through the transfer tax.
“You cover up land with a building, you’ve got to put money back so people can have access to green space,” Hastings recently told the Whig’s sister paper, The Star Democrat.
The law also requires that $90 million in past transfers from Program Open Space be repaid with general funds starting in 2018, and that additional repayments — totaling $152 million — be appropriated starting in 2021, according to the Department of Natural Resources.
Hastings said a study done last summer found a critical need for maintenance at most of Maryland’s state parks. As a result, the law allocates funds for state land and park development, maintenance and recreation.
One of the more important programs for the Eastern Shore is the Rural Legacy program, a sister program of Program Open Space administered by DNR, Hastings said.
Hastings said Eastern Shore Land Conservancy has a “very, very, very long list” of farm projects, and if funding were available today, ESLC could do “tens of thousands of acres in conservation easements,” including some in southern Cecil County. Rural Legacy funds not only preserve agricultural land and critical habitat, but also parks and green spaces within towns, he said.
Although the bill passed unanimously in the Democratic-controlled Maryland General Assembly and was praised by environmental organizations and others, the Maryland Democratic Party issued a two-sentence press release criticizing Hogan for signing legislation that included mandated spending after the governor had spoken out against such mandates.
“After telling Marylanders that mandates are bad, Larry Hogan created a new one when he signed HB462,” Maryland Democratic Party Executive Director Pat Murray said in a statement released after the bill signing. “Larry Hogan promised change and delivered political doublespeak, and he threw away his credibility on mandates today.”
The mandate the law requires is to repay the Program Open Space funds state lawmakers and governors have raided from the program to patch holes in the state’s budget in tough economic years.
There is a difference between requiring the state to repay money diverted from successful programs that preserve farmland, green space, open space and help local towns and counties fund parks and the types of mandates Hogan asked state lawmakers to relax in order to provide greater flexibility in the budget.
The Maryland Democratic Party apparently can’t see that distinction. The party also put politics against the good of the state, attacking Hogan for signing a bill that contained “mandates” rather than applauding state officials for working together to pass a law restoring some diverted open space funds and better protecting those funds in the future.
While we would prefer that transfer tax revenues be dedicated for the purpose for which they were intended and lawmakers prohibited from raiding the funds for other purposes, HB462 is a good start. The bill’s signing deserved the bipartisan support it garnered in the General Assembly, not the nonsensical political attack issued by the state’s Democratic Party.